Computer Music 12: optimizing sound quality

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iTunes and Apple work hard at keeping life simple for its users. So simple, in fact, they are prepared to sacrifice quality of sound for it - something that makes us scratch our collective heads. But then, this wouldn't be the first slap in the face to high end audio. iTunes easily plays most all sample rates and bit depth media without a problem. 192kHz, 24 bit audio? Fine, bring it on. But, there's a problem. What comes out the other end of your computer isn't necessarily the same sample rate and bit depth you're playing. This is the great homogenizing trick Apple uses to keep things simple and working, regardless of what's connected. In both Windows and Mac, the computer fixes the sample rate and bit depth to whatever the user chooses. They recommend setting it at standard CD rates: 16/44. Which is fine for CDs, not so good for higher resolution audio. iTunes will downsample high resolution audio to CD settings when you play a high resolution track. Or, it can be the opposite. If the user chooses to fix the computer output at 192/24, then no upsampling is used when you play that high resolution file. But if you play a CD, that music is upsampled to 192/24 before your DAC gets it. All this may or may not be a bad thing. There are many who love the sound of everything upsampled and ignore the issue entirely. Set the computer output to 192/24 and play away. Now, iTunes handles all music you play in it, and your DAC receives everything, over USB, at the higher sample rate. This isn't what many of us want, wishing instead for bit perfect performance. For Mac users the problem is solved. There are programs that take care of the issue. My favorite, and most recommended, is Bit Perfect. It's $10, handles everything well and to my ears, sounds the best. Others, like Pure Music, Audirvana, and Ammara, are well liked, do great as well, and as in all things high end, the opinions are as strong as black coffee. Each solves the problem described and allows bit perfect music at any sample rate and bit depth to play directly into your computer if you use a Mac. Windows, not so much. iTunes and Windows get along if you're focusing on a CD based library. If you want to play higher rez music, there's no add on program I am aware of that does what the many Mac based programs do. Windows users who wish to focus on high resolution audio, have two choices: set the computer to output 192/24 and upsample or just play CDs. If bit perfect is on your list of must haves, you would be better served with JRiver if you can figure out how to use it. Lastly, one option for Windows users is to - gulp - spend $500 on an Apple product. A Mac Mini is an 8 inch square aluminum sculpture not more than a couple of inches tall. Once setup, the box can sit quietly next to your DAC without a keyboard, mouse or video screen attached. Connect it to your DAC with a USB cable and control it with an iPad as I have described in these posts. It's what I do and it works nearly perfectly. And, $500? Many of us have paid more than that for a single USB cable. And no, the Apple cooties won't infect your bed at night. :) If there's any interest in seeing what's involved in building a headless music server for $500, you can read my article. Today's takeaway: to get the most out of iTunes on a Mac, install Bit Perfect. For Windows users, you'll need to stick with CDs or consider other alternatives for playing higher resolution music.
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Paul McGowan

Founder & CEO

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